A cerebral thriller with stunning photography and a highly capable lead actress, “Crypto Shadows” is a must-watch standout from GenreBlast.
When the internet entered the scene in the early nineties, movies exploded with a variety of perspectives, from the iconic (1995’s Hackers, an industrial cyberpunk feast of patent leather goofiness and earnest teen rebellion) to the laughable (1999’s Virtuosity, noted for featuring Denzel Washington in a purple velvet police uniform).
While many took full advantage of the clunky dreamscapes available in the virtual world, very few have stood the test of time.
Filmmakers (perhaps predictably) gorged themselves on the novelty of that new technology as each tried to answer the question, “How can we make this new frontier visually interesting?” With these pirates and renegades and “keyboard cowboys,” how can one explain this landscape when all it really is, when you get down to it, is someone sitting alone, typing quietly into the night?
For my money, the one that really got it right was 1995’s The Net, noted for up-and-comer bespectacled geek coder Sandra Bullock ordering a Domino’s Pizza online — something that was, itself, a jaw-dropping innovation at the time.
The film is nothing special, but it did absolutely nail the sense of isolation a life online can give you. In a community of anonymity, when you live and die with words on a screen, a digital world can leave you empty.
In Crypto Shadows, isolation was very much the goal.
Cara Hammond (Mikayla Iverson) has cloistered herself in a remote cabin, partly to work on cracking a crypto-mining algorithm and partly to heal from a nasty bout of sexual harassment at her previous job.
This trauma has left Cara paranoid and prone to hallucinations of a home invasion. She’s protected herself both online and off; her cabin has a generator, her systems have backups upon backups, and she’s even got a rifle on hand. But she’s kept a toehold in society through her online therapist, her parents, and particularly her friend and ex-coworker, Llamaz (voiced by William Benedict).
Still, the isolation has taken its toll.
Conveniently for us, she’s started to talk to herself, giving us a bit of a narrator through the more complex technobabble.
But narrators can be unreliable, especially when they’ve been in their heads too long. To her credit, Cara is all too aware of her own subjectivity.
When crowdsourced code starts spitting out strange findings, she reaches out to her online community. But soon, the attacks become more pronounced. She’s blocked from forums and logged off from sites. Strange calls keep coming in, and her firewall is breached again and again.
As Cara struggles to find the source of the code, she reaches out to Llamaz to help, with the likely assumption that she is being doxxed.
Soon, however, she begins to believe that her problem is more X Files than… X.
From there, Crypto Shadows becomes the sort of conspiracy thriller perfected in The Conversation or Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Written and directed by James Fox and co-written by Amy Kay DuBoff, Crypto Shadows presents the classic formula of one lone holdout against an unstoppable force, a force controlling everything we take for granted.
Like Cara, we end up questioning every sound, not knowing if every knock on the door is a friend, foe, or pizza guy. The film does a good job of setting up several possibilities, and you gotta love that moment when the paranoiac lead decides to stop taking her meds.
While I won’t spoil the ending, I will say it is both well-earned and satisfying.
Crypto Shadows could easily have dragged with a less capable actress. But as the lone face of the film, Mikayla Iverson is natural and engaging, whether she is troubleshooting firmware or chopping wood.
The editing style is snappy and fun, and the beauty of Cara’s remote landscape does a lot to enhance a story so intensely cerebral.
Crypto Shadows is a lovely addition to the techno-thriller genre and one that feels natural and believable in its storytelling, for the most part.
I will say that for all its charms (and there are many), the film did have a note of striking unbelievability that I wish had been left in the 90s. No one, and I do mean no one, can convince me that any coder has a manicure that perfect.